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Alternative Definition of Tellington TTouch In Light of Recent Findings in Neuroscience

Alternative Definition of Tellington TTouch In Light of Recent Findings in Neuroscience

By Kim Carneal and Caroline Larrouilh

The Tellington TTouch Method® is a holistic approach to physical, mental and emotional wellness that seamlessly integrates body work and in-hand work (ridden work in the case of horses), promoting a state of homeostasis (or coherence*) in both animal and handler.  Maintaining a stable physiological and emotional state under varying types of stresses is the ultimate goal of all organisms. TTouch has a direct effect on the natural physiological responses necessary to achieve homeostatic equilibrium.

TTouch is the first integrated system of touch and in-hand work to consciously and systematically recognize and honor inter-species communication, seeking to create a relationship between animal and human based not on dominance or the “alpha” model, but rather on the acknowledgement of the animal as an individual. Instead, the Tellington Method teaches the handler to lead by example: to approach and work with the animal with respect and empathy; to break information into manageable bits based on what we know about the way animals’ brains and emotions work; and to give them time and space to process what is asked, using feedback from the animal to guide the next step. The Tellington Method teaches the handler herself flexibility and open-mindedness when seeking solutions, requiring that they adapt creatively to the situation to help the animal learn new behaviors. The Tellington Method thus differs from more dogmatic, academic training approaches with circumscribed toolboxes that rely on ethology-based dominance or fear to force obedience rather than engaging the mind of the horse.

In each of its applications, the Tellington Method allows for an animal and handler to connect at a cellular level, experiencing a state of harmony characterized by a calm, focused awareness and trusting confidence in each other. Each species reaches emotional and physical homeostasis individually and as a unit.

the electromagnetic field of the heart is responsible for generating heart coherence

image courtesy the electromagnetic field of the heart is responsible for generating heart coherence

This degree of calm, engaged trust in mutual homeostasis (or coherence) greatly enhances the learning capability of both animal and handler. Research has shown that new skills are more quickly and easily learned in a state of calm, and are better retained and more easily generalized, or applied over a range of different situations. New scientific research about mirror neurons† may explain in part why the Tellington Method is so effective. Its exercises are thought to awaken mirror neurons in the brains of both animals and humans through both the sense of sight and touch. The sense of touch, along with the physical proximity and handler state of mind, is thought to further enhance the capacity for cooperative learning and performance via heart coherence. Heart coherence in turn effects an empathetic experience while increasing levels of neurohormone oxytocin (calm connection through physical contact) and decreasing cortisol (stress) in both animal and handler.

Mirror neurons are a large part of how we relate to others

Image courtesy Mirror neurons form a large part of how we relate to others. Discovered by Marc Iacoboni, they are literally responsible for the old saying, "monkey see, monkey do."

A key difference between the Tellington Method and others is that many of the benefits for the animal are handler independent and reciprocal. TTouch at its foundation is not a one-way endeavor like some methods of animal training, “do it my way because I am lead mare” or massage where the recipient is passive and the massage therapist is active, but interactive because heart coherence, neurohormone levels, and mirror neurons amount to cellular coherence in both beings.   TTouch works on the entire body, brain and mind of both species involved. TTouch benefits both animal and handler all the way down to the cellular level.


* coherence–consistency, cohesion. From
coherence  (kō-hîr’əns, -hěr’-) A property holding for two or more waves or fields when each individual wave or field is in phase with every other one

mirror neurons–neural cells found in the premotor cortex, supplementary motor area, primary somatosensory cortex, and the inferior parietal cortex of the brains of humans. While studies have not been conducted on horses, it is believed that most mammals share both similar brain structures and the capacity for mirror neuron function. In monkeys, functioning mirror neurons have been found in the inferior frontal gyrus. See Rizzolatti, Giacomo; Craighero, Laila (2004). “The mirror-neuron system”. Annual Review of Neuroscience 27: 169–192.

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Articulating the Feeling

Barbara Isaacs and Calvin Pony

Anyone reading this will have definite, positive feelings about living in the company of horses. Entire books have been written about man’s relationship with horses, and the impact they have had on our evolution and history. I’ve written about the physiological aspects of the horse / human relationship that mediate the feelings we experience.

I’m interested in how horses make you feel, personally.

My friend Caroline, who does equine body work has graciously gotten the ball rolling:

The best I can explain is when you are in your loved one’s arms and all is quiet. You are each aware of the other yet the consciousness of where one begins and one ends is blurry like sky meeting sea, the horizon line faded to nothing. Separate but one and bathing in absolute trust and stillness, almost drowsy from every cell in your bodies singing softly and greeting one another like long lost family.

Lucky are those who know these moments. They make anything less, less.

What do you feel when you are with horses?

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Who Says Horseflies Don’t Bother Grey Horses?

Who Says Horseflies Don’t Bother Grey Horses?

giddyup, whitey!In a recent article in the, Mark Abrahams recounts recent research concluding that horseflies prefer depolarized light, like that which bounces off the hair of colored horses. Many greys’ coats, especially those without flea-bitten pigment, polarize light, making it less appealing to horse flies.

Dr Gábor Horváth, head of the Environmental Optics Laboratory at Eotvos University in Budapest, studies mysteries involving light and living creatures. He observed that “white” horses attract fewer flies. I don’t know about you, but this has not been my experience. Not one of my Percherons or Percheron crosses would tell you that they feel unappealing to horseflies.

But here is what Horváth, a sort of “weird science dude” found and how he found it:

Horváth and colleagues wrote a study called An Unexpected Advantage of Whiteness in Horses: The Most Horsefly-proof Horse Has a Depolarising White Coat, published recently in the Proceedings of the Royal Society.

Horváth experimented with a small number of “sticky” horses, coated with “a transparent, odourless and colourless insect monitoring glue called Babolna Bio mouse trap. They used a large number of horseflies (of the variety called tabanids).

In a grassy field outside the town of Szokolya, Hungary, the scientists brought one black, one brown, and one white horse and collected and counted the flies that had become attached to the sticky horses every other day.

After 54 summer days, they found that the sticky brown horse trapped 15 times as many flies as the sticky white horse. And the unfortunate black horse trapped 25 times as many flies as the white one.

The differences, say the scientists, come from the way light bounces off horsehair. Polarised light — light that’s all vibrating in the same direction — attracts horseflies. When that light reflects off dark fur, it stays polarised. But when polarised light glances off white fur, it becomes less polarised, which, to a horsefly, is not so attractive.

I think the horseflies I’ve known have all been wearing Foster Grants.

What has your experience been?

Other interesting articles on this subject: An unexpected advantage of whiteness in horses: the most horsefly-proof horse has a depolarizing white coat
White horses are less attractive to horseflies
Fewer horseflies attracted to white-coated equids

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The Wrap Up: Questions on My Pet Issues

The Wrap Up: Questions on My Pet Issues

Wrapping up Enlightened Horsemanship Through Touch will involve the weaving of a lot of loose ends. During this three year experiment, I discovered my purpose as a writer. And I found a lot of folks out there who either share my interests or who make interesting and informed contributions to conversations about those interests. Shared biology, neurobiology, psychology, neuropsychology, sociology and equine behavior as they relate to human-equine interactions, specifically training, with a focus on the sensory system, will be my focus.

In the interest of furthering my knowledge about those topics, I’m planning on posting a series of topics and questions that I sincerely hope you all will respond to. In the eventuality that this work leads to a publication, anyone who responds here or via email will be duly credited.

Many, many thanks for reading, and/or taking the time to explore these issues with me.


I’m thinking about the evolutionary and biological precursors of the herd instinct. According to Frans De Waal, as a reflex, and as a biological entity, the herd instinct (and even man as a social animal) goes way back to the deepest, oldest layers of our brains. We share these layers not just with other mammals, but even with “lower” orders such as amphibians and fish. Even as humans began to hunt the savannas, we were still prey animals. Individuals hide within a larger herd to increase security from predators.* De Waal stresses security as the first and foremost reason for social life, and how predation forces individuals together, on both sides of the equation: predator and prey. Needless to say, when reading this, I thought immediately of horses and humans, and how they relate among themselves and to one another.

I am wondering about the roles of mirror neurons** and body synchrony*** in both horses and humans.

Thanks for thinking!

* Frans de Waal, The Age of Empathy, p 19.

**see also: Mirror Neurons Support the Need for Compassionate Horsemanship and
Mirror Neurons, Ownership of the Self, and Proprioception

***Body Synchrony: (whether it is via the pathway of mirror neurons is unknown) the mechanism by which animals move in coordinated movement. Think of large schools of tiny fish rapidly changing direction to avoid a shark, or thousands of wildebeest changing course upon an unseen cue, or, in a scenario more familiar to most of us, a herd of horses doing the same. Even humans make use of body synchrony in conversation, etc., and enjoy such processes as walking in step, dancing, and singing.

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Dharma Science: Mirror Neurons, Ownership of the Self & Proprioception

From Paul Griffin, in Dharma Science: Ramachandran and Anatta on Tuesday April 20, 2010

The Buddhist philosophy of psychology and perception, the Abhidharma, is a critical teaching. Here, the concept of perception is methodically broken down into its constituent parts, revealing how our self-identification is a kind of mental mistake. The result of this view is anatta, or no-self, which leads directly to interconnectedness. For the individual, the result is the natural flow of empathy for our fellow man who is stuck in the same painful illusion of selfhood. In other words, an understanding of no-self leads directly to compassion for others, to the heart of the Buddhist view. Meditation practice or a study of the Abhidharma help cultivate this view of selflessness. But

“what if meditation or the study of Buddhist philosophy doesn’t work for you? Well, there’s always science!” Read how V.S. Ramachandran suggests that our intense body-ownership-awareness is a kind of neurological mistake, one that is further enforced by our culture.

Maybe those who feel “at one” with their horses are really on to something after all.

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Science Friday: How “Natural” or Humane Are Equine Shock Collars?

Science Friday: How “Natural” or Humane Are Equine Shock Collars?

Just when I start to have faith in the intelligence of trainers and horsepeople, a reader question to Julie Goodnight on the category of horse behavior, on her website sets me back.

The questioner relates problems associated with a four-year-old draft mare in training under harness who is respectful to people but aggressive toward a pasturemate gelding.

Generally they get along fine. However, sometimes she just lays into him kicking, biting, running at him and charging him. Sometimes we are in the pasture with them when this behavior is going on. Needless to say, we are a bit nervous about getting caught in the crossfire.

Two questions for you:

1) Some of this is no doubt just normal horse behavior. Is there an underlying training issue though that we should be addressing with our mare?

2) She has never demonstrated any tendency at kicking towards us. We do recognize the risk to our safety when she is acting this way towards the gelding and we happen to be in the way. But is it likely that a horse acting this way with another horse will start getting that kicking tendency with humans?

Clearly, the questioner is new to horsekeeping. That’s not a problem. Everyone is new in the beginning. They depend on good, safe advice from those who have experience. One would think that well-known trainers like Goodnight would dispense sensible, time-tested advice on how to deal with such issues. This is the problem: wait until you read what Goodnight suggests as an alternative to learning about horse behavior and how to handle horses on the ground. I wonder if she gets a kickback from the manufacturers of the product she obliquely endorses.

While the behavior you describe could be chalked up to normal herd behavior, some horses can be classified as bullies. These horses are unnecessarily aggressive towards others. In other words, even after dominance has been fully established, they continue to attack other horses around them—seemingly for no good reason other than just to pick on them. If the gelding is not doing anything to deserve these attacks, then I’d say your mare is a bully.
There is one sure-fired method of curing aggressive horses and I have used it a few times for this purpose. It is a shock collar. It straps around the horse’s neck and is operated off a remote control, issuing a mild and brief shock when you push the button on the remote. Shocking her for her two or three times for her unwarranted and dangerous behavior would probably be all it would take to permanently resolve her of the aggressiveness.

The Vicebreaker

It is intended for use with extreme behavior that is harmful to horse, humans and/or property and it is highly effective. I’ve used it for stall and trailer kickers, for aggressive horses and for a tantrum throwing horse, who threw a wall-eyed destructive tantrum any time you’d take his buddy away. In most cases, one or two training sessions resolved the bad behavior; for the tantrum thrower, it took a few more.

Many people are initially turned off by this approach—I suppose thinking it is cruel or too harsh. But in my opinion, in certain circumstances, it is the most humane approach. I know of a horse who has now kicked and killed two horses by kicking them and breaking their legs. Then, take the case of a stall kicker—whose behavior can cause him serious injury and is destructive to property (and may result in him being evicted from a boarding barn). The most common training technique for this vice is to hang “kicking chains” on the horse’s hind legs which wrap him in the legs every time he kicks (and bumps his legs every time he moves). It will discourage him from kicking but you have to leave the chains on forever—not a very nice thing for the horse. Whereas one or two sessions with the shock collar would permanently cure him of stall kicking and prevent him from injury.

I would think it might have even more effects than that. Like shock collars for dogs, this seems to me to be a case of thoughtless overkill. The horse’s sense of touch is very keen. To assault him via this avenue strikes me as cruel and extreme. But maybe I’m being naive. There are situations in which horses can be even more dangerous than the horse the reader describes. This from Stopping Aggression Problems With an Equine Shock Collar from the AAEP Convention, 2004 by Stephanie L. Church:

Veterinary expense, property damage, loss of use of affected horses, and the emotional cost associated with the death of an animal if injured severely during an aggressive act all demand a reliable way to change this behavior in the horse. Kennedy has experienced success in using an equine electronic collar with a number of horses.
Aggressive behavior in horses results in a range of injuries that often must be attended to by a veterinarian, from minor cuts and bruises to career-ending or life-threatening injuries. These injuries are a direct result of being bitten or kicked, or chased through or over a fence.

We have all seen horses that have experienced these injuries. We have all pondered how to prevent them from happening. First step in prevention: veterinary examination to rule out health issues that might contribute to the dangerous behavior. Cryptorchidism, ovarian cysts, pain, conformational issues that negatively affect perception can all cause aggressive behavior. Stop right there if these and more are detected. You know what to do. But what if no possible medical cause is detected? The next step is determining how to stop the undesirable behavior.

Isolate the horse?
Rehome the horse?
Euthanize the horse?

This article says,

some horses are emboldened by a barrier since they know the target horse will be less likely to show retribution since a fence is in the way. Not every horse owner is blessed with dead space between fence lines, and many boarding stables aren’t able to accommodate a horse requiring isolation. Isolation can lead to further behavioral problems. Then we reach our final option, which is to sell the aggressive horse. Many do not want to do this because the horse may be exceptional in every other way–they just have a hard time getting along with others.

What does the research say about the effectiveness of equine shock collars? Do they eliminate aggressive behavior in the short or long term?

One study looked at a group of 15 horses that were either aggressive toward a new horse in the pasture, aggressive toward a horse on the opposite side of a fence, or aggressive within an established herd.

About the collar used: The collar rests anywhere behind the throatlatch, and it does not matter where on the neck the receiver is touching the horse.

When you see the horse doing what he shouldn’t, you push the button. Start at the lowest (shock) level–I didn’t count horses that were just posturing with their ears back, I only corrected them when they made an aggressive move toward another horse,” she explained. On the transmitter, which has six levels of intensity, the required levels ranged from 2-5 to stop the aggression, with a mean of 4. One to four stimulations were used on each horse, but most only required two to change their behavior.

Aggressive mares in a pasture responded to stimulation when they were aggressive toward a new mare added to the pasture. Upon the first stimulation, aggressive mares would have instant posture changes. Those mares tended to follow the new mare around for a few minutes, apparently trying to figure out if the new mare was responsible for the shock. After the second shock, the aggressive mares apparently decided to befriend the new mares, seeking to graze next to them and accepting them as part of the group.

he total time before first and last stimulations required to change the behavior ranged from 10 minutes to 2 and a half days. Collars remained on the horses for one week, and aggressive behavior was monitored for a period of 30 days following the initial correction period. None of the horses exhibited aggressive behavior during that interval. The collar was determined to be extremely effective in deterring aggressive behavior.

The authors of the study say that the collar is effective because the correction is instantaneous and concurrent with the undesirable behavior, and invisible. There is no apparent agent of discipline. As such, they say, the collar can be used to deter aggressive behavior against humans, too.

Most issues are not mean horses. Usually it’s a lack of respect, and they know that they can dominate the owner and can avoid a whip. Most know it’s bad, but think they can get away with it. If the client can be consistent in observing the horse, the collar can work well for cribbing and stall walkers as well. These types of behaviors won’t be stopped by one or two sessions of use. However, many cribbers can become collar-wise and any time the horse is likely to crib, the owner needs to be present with the transmitter.


Group 1: Pasture Aggression (Six Mares)
Number of times stimulated: 1–4
Time between first and last stimulation: 10 minutes–1.5 hours
Total length of time collar was on horse: 1 week for all horses
Levels used: 3–5
Number of horses that reverted to aggressive behavior in the month after the removal of the collar: 0*

Group 2: Aggression With Barrier (Three Stallions, Two Mares, and One Gelding)
Number of times stimulated: 2–4
Time between first and last stimulation: 15 minutes–2 1/2 days
Total length of time collar was on horse: 1 week for all horses
Levels used: 3–5
Number of horses that reverted to aggressive behavior in the month after the removal of the collar: 0*

Group 3: Paddock Aggression (Two Geldings)
Number of times stimulated: 2–4
Time between first and last stimulation: 1.5–2 days
Total length of time collar was on horse: 1 week for all horses
Levels used: 2–4
Number of horses that reverted to aggressive behavior in the month after the removal of the collar: 0

Group 4: Aggression Associated With Feeding (One Mare)
Number of times stimulated: 4
Time between first and last stimulation: 2 days
Total length of time collar was on horse: 1 week
Levels used: 3–4
Number of horses that reverted to aggressive behavior in the month after the removal of the collar: 0

*Other observations that were made in the pasture and over fence groups were that the results, although long-lasting for that particular neighbor or new horse, did not extend to a new neighbor or additional new horse being introduced and the process had to be repeated.

I honestly believe that the same results can be achieved with less harmful and, if you’ll pardon the pun, shocking means. Training and companionship with humans along with other horses by professionals and well educated owners cannot be replaced by a torture device. If a horse has aggression issues, a lack of “respect” may be the result of many deeper causes. Only with time, patience and inquiry will these issues be discovered and resolved. A shock collar is a cruel bandaid.

I am appalled that Julie Goodnight would hawk such a contraption when her claim to fame is the training of horses. If we can’t trust the trainers who are supposed to teach us how, then who can we trust?

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